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Tip Sheets

Covering free dental clinics

Julie Drizin
Julie Drizin


By Mary Otto

Recently Julie Drizin, who directs the Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF), gathered a team of student reporters to cover a free two-day dental clinic sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Public Health.  The dental clinic, which was held on the university’s basketball court with support from organizations including Mission of Mercy, aimed to provide $1 million in dental care to poor and uninsured adults. The student’s coverage of the 100-chair clinic resulted in a compelling assortment of stories that are packaged together on JCCF’s website as part of the regular “On The Beat” feature.

As Drizin observed in a Q & A on the project, covering these events can be challenging.  

The hours can be long. The crowds can be large. And many of the patients waiting in the long lines for care are tired and hurting. Some are frightened and ashamed.

"Be a human being," Drizin counseled her students. "You are going there as a journalist trying to get a story on deadline, but connect with people on a human level. That’s how you can make the most of this experience. Just keep your mind, your eyes, your ears and your heart open. Stories are everywhere."

I asked Drizin to offer some additional advice for AHCJ members who may find themselves heading to one of these free clinics for a story.  Here are the tips she passed along.  

1. "Bring your own food. Not to avoid conflict of interest but to avoid hunger!"

2. "Make sure the people you film or photograph are okay with that. Not everyone is willing to let you put a camera in their face or their mouths. It’s a very intimate space, but you do have to get as close to the story as possible."

3. "Don't assume that everyone in the room lacks dental insurance. Sure tens of millions of Americans lack coverage and can't get dental procedures covered through Medicaid, but many present have insurance that includes high deductibles, co-pays or lifetime limits on certain procedures. "

While you may spend most of your time talking with patients, don't overlook the chance to talk with organizers and volunteers at the event you are covering.  Many stress that as impressive as these free clinics can be, charity care alone cannot fix the system.

Drizin points out that while some of the patients you interview may be Medicaid beneficiaries, some will not be. Unlike children, poor adults are not entitled to dental care under Medicaid. The procedures that are covered vary from state to state and are vulnerable to cuts during economic downturns. Use the assignment as an opportunity to find out about adult Medicaid dental benefits in your state.

If you are looking for help exploring this angle, The Kaiser Family Foundation gathers data on state programs nationwide.

The Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors also maintains a trove of information including links to state specific oral health agencies and programs.

In addition, more than 100 million people in America lack dental insurance, and many of those who have coverage face barriers in finding care, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration or HRSA.

An estimated 49 million Americans live in 4,230 federally-designated Dental Health Provider Shortage Areas.  Check to see if your area may fall into that category.